Popular Kachin Party Calls for Abolition of China-Backed Dam in Election Policy Platform
By Nan Lwin 31 August 2020
YANGON—A popular Kachin party has vowed to seek the permanent abolition of a controversial suspended China-backed mega-dam on Myanmar’s lifeline Irrawaddy River as part of its manifesto for the upcoming general election.
The Kachin State People’s Party (KSPP) on Sunday published a 15-point manifesto for the 2020 election that pledges to tackle a range of pressing state issues including building a federal union, successfully concluding the peace process, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, improving education, health and the rule of law, creating job opportunities, and resolving the problems of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
In the ninth point in its manifesto, the party said it would “continue to make efforts to halt the Myitsone Dam forever.”
Gumgrawng Awng Hkam, the KSPP’s vice chair and a member of its Central Executive Committee, told The Irrawaddy, “Nobody wants to see the revival of the dam. Not only Kachin people—a majority of the people in Myanmar. We are a people’s party. Our policy is in line with the people’s voice. So, we decided to put it in the manifesto.”
“The most effective way to stop the project permanently is to speak from the Parliament. We must work to stop the project from the Parliament,” Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said.
“I believe holding a transparent discussion in Parliament is the most effective way to achieve our goal,” he said.
The party formed through a merger of six major Kachin parties in 2018 with support from stakeholders including religious leaders, cultural and social groups, civil society organizations, think tanks and ordinary Kachin people. The aim of the merger is to avoid splitting the ethnic vote and to establish a party that will be a genuinely strong contender in the 2020 election.
The KSPP expects to win a majority in the state parliament and many seats in both the Lower and Upper houses of the Union Parliament.
The US$3.6-billion (4.8-trillion-kyat) project is located about 3.2 km south of the confluence of the May Kha and Mali Kha rivers, which gives rise to the Irrawaddy River. If completed, the 6,000 MW dam would rank among the largest hydropower projects in the region. Work on the project was begun in 2009 by China’s State Power Investment Corporation (SPIC), which was then known as the China Power Investment Corporation (CPI). However, then-President Thein Sein suspended it in 2011 amid widespread public concern over the dam’s social and environmental impacts.
Environmentalists warn that the dam site has some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world and that the project would both destroy the natural beauty of the Irrawaddy River and disrupt water flow. They also warn that it could potentially flood an area the size of Singapore, destroying livelihoods and displacing more than 10,000 people.
After taking office in 2016, the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government set up a 20-member commission to review the dam, particularly its potential impacts on the environment and local communities. According to the government, the commission has produced two reports, but neither has been made public.
Last year, the Union minister for investment and foreign economic relations, Thaung Tun, said the government and a commission studying the project held serious discussions exploring all possible options for the project, including downsizing the dam, relocating it or developing other projects instead. However, it has not announced a decision yet.
Moreover, pressure from Beijing to revive the dam has fueled negative sentiment toward the project among the Myanmar public. After visiting Kachin in December 2018, then Chinese Ambassador Hong Liang claimed the Kachin people were not opposed to the dam’s resumption, sparking a series of protests in major cities calling for the project to be canceled.
Prominent civil society leaders, environmentalists and film stars also announced a “One Dollar” campaign to collect money from the public in order to compensate China in exchange for scrapping the dam. Despite this strong show of public opposition, the Chinese company continues to lobby local officials that the dam is safe and won’t collapse in the event of an earthquake, and will not destroy the region’s biodiversity or have other harmful environmental impacts. It maintains its position that the project should be revived for the benefit of both sides.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Naypyitaw in January, nearly four dozen civil society organizations (CSOs) issued a demand that he terminate the dam permanently, saying it poses a threat to the public welfare and to friendly relations between the two countries.
However, the project is still in limbo, as the NLD government has not officially announced its stance on the dam.
During a trip to the state just before the 2015 election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi promised the Kachin people that she would make public the details of the project contract that the military dictatorship signed with China. However, she has since maintained a long silence on her own stance on the dam.
Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said, “[Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] doesn’t keep her promises. Nothing has happened in reality, including on the peace process and IDPs. She did not speak out and stand up for the people when they were demanding [that the dam be halted]. As a Kachin party, we have a responsibility to follow the people’s will.”
“I also want China to abolish the project, as the people in this country don’t want it. Moreover, they should understand that no project should begin without a proper discussion with local people,” Gumgrawng Awng Hkam said.
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